July 25, 2012

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has mandated that helicopter pilots flying to and from New York City and eastern Long Island must follow a route along the north shore of Long Island that tracks up to a mile offshore for much of the trip.

The ruling, which bars helicopter traffic over much of Long Island, comes after a push by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who was responding to noise complaints from residents citing helicopters as the source. For several years, Schumer has spearheaded a move to force helicopter pilots to fly routes away from the island’s most populated areas.

The FAA mandate, which takes affect on Aug. 6, requires pilots to follow a corridor that extends between North Hempstead and Glen Cove in western Long Island, and runs over Long Island Sound to eastern Long Island and the upscale Hamptons area. Pilots must fly at an altitude of at least 2,500 feet while over land and 3,000 feet during the offshore transit.

Aviation groups opposing the mandate charge that using the route may lead to an increase in noise complaints. “It transitions over Southold and Cutchogue, which are very noise-sensitive areas,” said Jeffery Smith, chairman of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council (ERHC). That group, along with NBAA, Helicopter Association International (HAI) and others, has lobbied for several years against making the route mandatory, saying it also will increase fuel use and poses a safety risk for some smaller helicopters, especially during bad weather.

There is a precedent for their concern. In 2007, ERHC, HAI and NBBA Member helicopter pilots agreed to fly a voluntary corridor that followed a similar route to the one now required by the FAA. As a result, noise complaints actually increased by about 360 percent, leading local residential groups to accuse the pilots of violating the agreed-upon route.

As a result of these claims, ERHC invested in a study of helicopter usage in the Long Island area. “We did data collection and found that we had a 95 percent compliance rate from area pilots using the route,” Smith said, adding that a few modifications were made to the corridor. “It didn’t fix the problem because you had to get to and from the route by flying over the same neighborhoods everyday. That’s a big deal when you have 15,000 (helicopter) operations a year.”

The aviation groups later changed the overland route to the eastern Long Island portion of the corridor, which dispersed flights to and from the main voluntary route over a wider area. Smith said noise complaints dropped by 60 percent.

Yielding to the outside pressure, the FAA, in 2010, issued a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking to make the voluntary routes mandatory and permanent. Schumer also attempted to include language seeking to make the routes mandatory in two separate transportation bills, including the FAA reauthorization legislation, but the provision was removed on both occasions, Smith said.

At this point, ERHC, NBAA and other groups opposing the FAA mandate are considering what can be done to stop it.

“Right now, it’s a two-year, temporary rule,” said Smith. “We are going to do something to halt it or have it thrown out. We are asking everyone in the industry to support our efforts.”

Meanwhile, Dean Saucier, NBAA northeast regional representative, said there is a concern that if the FAA mandate is upheld, it could lead to similar rulings, or even legislation affecting not only helicopters, but also fixed-wing aircraft.

“We fear this could be the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “If legislators start to use methods like this to restrict air traffic, we are going to have larger, more onerous issues.”